BABETTE’S FEAST – Blu-ray review

I’ve only recently discovered just how beloved “Babette’s Feast” (1987) is. When I mentioned it in a film discussion group, faces lit up and one woman declared that it was possibly her favorite movie. A brief web search shows it cropping up on many top film lists, often accompanied by gushing appreciations. And when Jonathan Rosenbaum had the temerity to file the only negative review currently logged at Rotten Tomatoes, the handful of indignant responses were tinged with a soupcon of the fanboy rage usually associated with movies about Spandexed vigilantes.

With that in mind, let me begin by admitting that I am a Philistine in matters of cuisine. I’ll cut to the chase. I just ate at Arby’s. And I liked it. There’s a decent chance I’ll eat there tomorrow too. I just want you to know that so you can dismiss everything I’m about to say, but perhaps you can be charitable in understanding that I simply don’t know any better. Now back to the movie.

Two spinster sisters observe a pious lifestyle in a fishing village in Denmark in the 1870s, sacrificing love and other worldly pleasures to honor the teachings of their father, a strict Lutheran minister. How strict? He named his girls Martine (Birgitte Felderspiel) and Filippa (Bodil Kjer) after Martin Luther and, I guess, one of Martin’s buddies named Phil. Even after their father dies, the ladies devote their lives to tending to his faithful and aging flock.

One day a mysterious woman arrives in the village seeking refuge. She has lost her family in the purge of communards in France and presents a letter of recommendation from one of the sister’s former suitors (one of several unfulfilled loves hinted at in the film). The letter declares that Babette (Stephane Audran) needs a job and that she sure can cook, but she gets little opportunity to prove it as she is mostly asked to prepare the simple recipes that make Lutheranism seem like a palatable lifestyle: soak one bland thing in another bland thing in order to enhance their mutual blandness.

Poker-faced Babette, bless her heart, doesn’t flinch when instructed on the proper preparation of ale and bread soup, and spends the next decade plus diligently spicing up the indigenous dishes just enough that the villagers look forward to waking up each day, but not so much that they stop looking forward to their promised rewards in the next life. Everyone sings hymns and engages in the much-loved hobby of just kind of sitting there in the dark, content to observe routine in perpetuity.

Then one day news arrives that Babette has won a large sum of money in the lottery. For the first time in her new post, Babette asks a favor of the sisters: she wants to cook an authentic French dinner in observation of the late pastor’s birthday and pay for it herself. They grudgingly accede, but the village is set into a frenzy. The thought of actually tasting something strikes fear into the hearts of the abstemious faithful (cue a “Rosemary’s Baby”-esque nightmare of the sinful indulgences to come), and they vow not to enjoy any of it.

Babette has little baby quail and a giant turtle boated in from France along with cartloads of cheeses, wines, and fruits. Their elaborate preparation and presentation  consume much of the final half of the movie, and apparently set epicurean hearts a-flutter. By the third course, I would have been asking if I could have a cheeseburger instead. You’re already raging, I know. Crunching a little bird’s head and sucking its brains out is a gourmet treat! Funneling gallons of alcohol down your throat between each course cleanses the palate! OK, you’re right, you’re right. I already admitted that I’m a Philistine.

Food porn is, I suppose, like any other. It either turns you on or it doesn’t. What makes one mouth water makes another stomach churn. Intimate close-ups of food preparation either tickle your senses or gross you out. There is certainly more to “Babette’s Feast” than just the decadent food and drink, but the sensual culinary pleasures so specifically evoked are what turned the film into an unlikely hit for Danish director Gabriel Axel who was repeatedly told that his planned adaptation of the short story by Isak Dinesen (the pen name of Karen Blixen) was unfilmable. The movie was not just a commercial success, but also earned a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1988.

The film also touched audiences by situating Babette as a supremely talented artist who gets to display her gift in the unlikeliest of places. I find it a little more difficult to accept her role as an alchemist and healer whose magical meal instantly transforms the lives of even the most reluctant diners, rekindling old loves, salving ancient wounds, and uniting a fracturing community. Axel’s gentle sense of humor, poking fun at but never mocking Lutheran asceticism, is endearing, but I suspect that you have to be blown away by the artistry of the meal to find the final payoff convincing and compelling.

Many viewers were blown away, and count “Babette’s Feast” as the finest of cinematic comfort foods. Me, I’m still waiting for my cheeseburger.

The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The film’s fine grain structure becomes most apparent on freeze frame; it’s subtle and enriching. Contrast is somewhat muted which makes sense considering the button-down Lutheran setting. Image detail is generally strong throughout and there is no damage evident from the source print.

The linear PCM 2.0 audio track is sharp and fairly straightforward with a modest, naturalistic tone. Dialogue is all clearly mixed as far as I can tell. Optional English subtitles support the Danish, French, and Swedish audio.

A new (May 2013) interview with director Gabriel Axel (9 min.) was conducted in the Karen Blixen museum in Denmark. Axel sticks mostly to generalities (“Love is the main theme”) but is very appealing, especially when he takes justifiable pride in his perseverance against the skeptics who told him his film would never work.

Actress Stephane Audran (2012, 24 min.) speaks about her role and in detail about the period costumes.

Sociology professor Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson (2013, 17 min.) speaks to the importance of cuisine as a source of French national identity and goes into some detail about 19th century French cuisine.

“Table Scraps” (26 min.) is a visual essay by director Michael Almereyda which doesn’t provide the close reading that most Criterion visual essays do. It drifts from topic to topic, touching on aspects of the film’s production with a strong focus on author Karen Blixen. The piece is narrated by Lori Singer and ends with a “postscript” featuring photographer Peter Beard who met Blixen and took portraits of her late in life.

“Karen Blixen – Storyteller” (90 min.) is a 1995 documentary by Christian Braad Thomsen. This seems like a fairly straightforward documentary about a writer, but I haven’t had the opportunity to watch it.

The Blu-ray wraps up with a one minute Trailer.

The square-bound 64-page insert booklet includes an essay by film scholar Mark Le Fanu as well as a re-print of the 1950 short story the film is adapted from.

Film Value:
The North American Blu-ray debut of “Babette’s Feast” should please the film’s many enthusiastic fans. The 1080p transfer is strong and Criterion has included an impressive array of extras with a welcome focus on author Isak Dinesen.